REVIEW: Sweet Tea (About Face Theatre)

Satisfyingly Refreshing

 

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About Face Theatre presents
   
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South
   
Written and performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by
Daniel Alexander Jones
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave. (map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I love personal essays. It’s my favorite literary genre. In fact, I love them so much that in addition to writing for this site, I run a personal essay reading series (Essay Fiesta). So I like to think I have a pretty good eye and ear for the telling and retelling of individual’s stories.

Actor and writer E. Patrick Johnson seems to like personal essays as well. His new one-man performance piece, Sweet Tea, is a dramatic account of the lives of gay Southern black men. The tales are all true. About six years ago, Johnson assumed the role of journalist and interviewed a number of subjects for his book that bares the same name as the play. A staged reading of some of these MSB_7710tales followed, which then eventually developed into the material’s current incarnation.

The result of all this labor is a compelling documentary that gives voice to an oft-ignored community, a community that represents a double minority in an area of the country where not being a heterosexual white man can jeopardize your safety.

Johnson pieces together a patchwork of unique characters, all of whom are bonded by their similar heritages and sexualities, but whom possess a varied array of viewpoints. There’s the elderly Countess Vivian, born 1912, who speaks while holding a staff and carries himself as a humble matriarch of Southern black gay culture. There’s the soft-spoken Freddie, who tells about how he’d slash bullies with a razor when he was picked on in school. And then there’s Johnson himself, who adds an extra layer of intimacy and vulnerability to the play by divulging his own stories about his life.

The play is divided up by topic. For each topic, which includes coming out, sex, love/relationships and HIV/AIDS, a handful of characters chime in about their own experiences. Some of these monologues induce laughter and joy, celebrating the diversity of humankind. Others are deeply depressing, reflecting the self-hate that has been instilled within many gay black men of the South.

In particular, the portion of the show devoted to religion and church is keenly revealing. Many of Johnson’s subjects have a complex, and often paradoxical, relationship with the church. One even goes so far to say that there are more gay men at service than there are at the clubs. But despite the fact that gays are the backbone of the institutional part of the faith, they are also preached against and reviled. This upsets one character, who views his homosexuality as a sin. He reasons that the church should welcome such sinners, clumping together murderers and gays in the same sentence, while failing to realize the extent of his self-hatred.

Johnson effortlessly transitions from one character to the next, assuming more than a dozen affectations. Sometimes the character will erupt out of nowhere, while at other times Johnson himself will summon the subject. His tools are his voice and his physicality, which he manipulates throughout the show. A screen abutting the stage flashes the name of the speaker, which helps the audience identify which character Johnson has just morphed into.

   
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The only criticism I have for Johnson’s performance is his stumbling. Understandably there’s a lot of material to cover in this piece, so line flubs are forgivable to an extent. But there were several times where the words became jumbled, and for Johnson to recover, he had to briefly break character.

Daniel Alexander Jones’ direction is decent, though superfluous at times. Often Johnson will be fumbling with a jar or stringing a strand of beads onto a tree for no apparent reason. Perhaps it’s poetic, but it’s meaning is lost on me. It’s not so much of a distraction as it is a missed opportunity. I would have rather seen action that falls in line more directly with the stories, whether acting out anecdotes or assuming the posture each character possessed while being interviewed by Johnson.

The idea of doing a documentary as a play is an intriguing one, and, overall, it works. However, I wonder whether the staged reading of these same interviews would not have been just as, if not more, compelling. To the piece’s credit, Johnson’s performance does breath life into these words, which certainly makes for a vibrant performance and, as the personal essay genre necessitates, he successfully conveys the truth of his subject’s lives in a way that is honest, non-judgmental and entertaining.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Extra Credit:

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REVIEW: Mike Daisey – How Theater Failed America

A talented voice for the theater-cynic in all of us

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Victory Gardens Theatre presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
At
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through May 2nd  |  Tickets: $25  |   more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

“You should not have come here,” begins Mike Daisey in his one-man tour de force of nature, How Theater Failed America.  For one thing, he continues, the title of the show sucks – ( “What is this, a fucking film strip?”)  For another, Daisey’s simultaneously bleak and brilliant autobiographical walk down the memory lane of his career will outrage the politically correct. It will also send those who view theater as a sacred, noble art spiraling and screaming down a wild rabbit hole of profane realty.  (Spoiler alert: Those who want to cling to the myth of  “community”  in theater should stay home and stick to their Twitter confabs.)  It’s fair to ask why anyone other than out-of-work actors (which is to say – more or less – actors) should give a whit about the death of theater or about Daisey’s scathing monologue.  Will the grid go dark if all of the world’s liberal arts grads collectively decide never to mount another revival of A View from the Bridge? Does the world’s well-being rest on an endless cycle of revisionist Ibsen? Of course not.  Yet this is where Daisey’s explosive and formidable talent becomes so gloriously apparent. Directed by Jean-Michele GregoryHow Theater Failed America will be powerfully entertaining even to those who could not care less about whether Becket and Brecht vanish from the face of the earth, washed away by the likes of “The Little Mermaid”.  As for those with a vested interest in the arts, they will find themselves repeatedly shocked and undeniably entertained by the galvanizing candor of Daisey’s observations.  The man articulates truths that just aren’t spoken aloud and in doing so, breaks what often feels like a conspiracy of silence among artists.  (Question the existence of “community” in local theatrical circles, and you’ll all but be accused of heresy.)

Weaving deeply personal stories into the context of the arts in the 21st century, Daisey  hits the audience with a barrage of blazing immediacy and devastating honesty. While it’s autobiographical,  Gregory’s direction excises the piece of all self-indulgence and paces it so well the two-hour run time feels like 15 minutes, This is a story about MIke Daisey’s life in the theater, but it is also a story about life in general in all its dazzling, manic absurdity and free-falling despair. How Theater Failed America is about how doing an ill-advised version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony with an albino, a dwarf, a mud pit and a perpetually drunk director can prove to be one’s redemption.  And if one achieves that redemption by being forced to masturbate before an audience that includes little children? Then surely there is hope for even the most depressed, hopeless and rudderless among us.

Long before Daisey segues into the suicidal segment of his career (his crystalline description of doing the Dead Man’s float night after night on an icy Maine lake is almost unbearably vivid), he offers a brief lesson in How Theater Works.  Anyone who has perused any given season at  the Goodman already knows about the “ freeze-dried” actors imported from New York on a regular basis. What perhaps isn’t so obvious:  That artistic directors are actually more like factory foremen, that board members are forever trying to run the machinery and that plays aren’t really plays so much as “slots” (as in the winter slot, the spring slot, the minority slot).

Daisey has no illusions about what  prompts the inclusion of his show in a season: that conversation never starts with an artistic director saying something like “I love your work and want to bring you to my stage.” It instead usually starts with a managing director saying something like “You probably heard we had to cancel our ‘Pericles.’ "  Theaters turn to him because he offers a show with no set demands and the smallest possible cast size.  Were it possible to stage a show with a cast of less than one, he’d be out of work, Daisey admits.

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His experience teaching is similarly forthright  and sentiment-free – which makes its emotional wallop all the more powerful . In a segment that could draw tears from a stone, Daisey recalls a season wherein he shaped a bunch of thuggish juvenile delinquents into an award-winning one-act company.  If you think this chapter merits a “Stand and Deliver” moment, expect to have your rosy romantic expectations dashed under a cold stone of reality.  After the win, Daisey describes his cold, bone-certain knowledge that his teenage star – a deeply troubled boy for whom theater became a lifeline and who dreamed of going to college and majoring in acting – was a loser whose aspirations would never become actualities.  There’s triumph of the human spirit, and then there’s the harsh, bitter reality that some people cannot escape the dead-ends of their own, sad, uncontrollable circumstances. 

Daisey’s youthful attempts at creating his own theater company in western Maine are similarly un-romantic and, often, riotously funny in the telling.  His story of living on rationed Raman noodles and putting on shows held together (literally, in the case of the light board) with duct tape is a misadventure that every 20something, self-appointed artistic director of an Off-Loop start-up would do well to heed.  That you can’t eat idealism (or even fashion an adequate sound design from it)  is the least of the perils faced by young, starry-eyed artists certain that their revival of Suburbia can change if not the world, than  at the very least, their community.

Yet for all Daisey’s clear-eyed vision , How Theater Failed America is hardly a cynical show.  That the actor survived masturbating to Genet is an ironclad testament to the fact that talent, in the end, can trump even the  most daunting of obstacles. Yes, audiences are getting smaller, older and disturbing the actors with their wheezing oxygen tanks. Daisey’s touring nonetheless. And with a cracking fine show. If he has succeeded among theater’s many failures, there’s hope for the arts yet .

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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Mike Daisey presents a second monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, May 5 – 9 at the Victory Gardens. Tickets are $25. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org

REVIEW: How Theater Failed America (Victory Gardens)

A talented monologist tells it like it is

 

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Victory Gardens presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 2nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The stage is set like a Spaulding Gray performance – and that’s probably not an accident: empty save for a long, rectangular wooden desk in the center set with a glass of water and a few precisely stacked, torn out pages of ruled and written on yellow note paper. There are random collections of bric-a-brac piled high in the back, dimly lit like a proscenium made of old trunks and other junk, receded so far that it’s become a frame, a wall hanging. A stray lamp with no shade lingers brightly on one daisey_spadeaspadeside of the stage, and a single, lonely chair waits behind the desk. Enter, Mike Daisey, to applause. He takes his seat opposite the audience and sets off on a two hour explanation about How Theater Failed America.

The first thing Mike Daisey takes on in his rocket-fueled, sit-down invective monologue How Theater Failed America is the title of his own show. It’s a flimsy passive construction, he complains, as he slams his fist against the desk for emphasis and clarity. A small cloud of dust shoots out, dissipating in the light. Ridiculing himself even more, he shreds his own logic to set off on the right comedic foot and lighten the mood – perhaps people will stop thinking about the weight or potential boredom threatened by the show’s title.  He continues, asking – does the title suggest that there will be a powerpoint presentation? Is that what the ‘How’ is for? Is he trying to consciously drive people away with the show?

Once he’s done making fun of himself, he begins to bait the audience with guesses about their suspect motivations and beliefs about this angrily titled show. He laughs at the audience’s thirst to see someone or something crucified; then he recounts a conversation with an artistic director friend who told him that the show was great but the name was shit.

The monologue from the waist up told from behind a desk beneath stage lights without design flourishes or technical frills is stand-up comedy’s tragic relative – the uncle who embarrasses at a family function. The fun in stand-up comedy comes from watching a comedian wander from topic-to-topic, chasing laughs like a poacher on safari – hunting for that elusive combination of the hysterical and the everyday.  Conversely, the fun in watching Mike Daisey’s monologue comes from watching Daisey attempt to take on the institutions and corporations, the characters and personalities, the theories and practices of the American theater business like a surgeon turning a dull scalpel on his own body to cure actors and audience members suffering from a certain commercial or regional non-profit malaise.

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From behind his desk, Daisey delivers an exhaustingly good performance. Each word seems paired with an energetic gesture and the gesture accompanies each reuse of that word. It makes it very hard not to pay close attention to the only man glowing beneath the lights on stage, screeching every third minute. The audience begins to hear the story unfold in Daisey’s own desktop language of emphatic eyes, thirsty sips, brow-sweat wipes, and swinging limbs. The effect is hypnotic.

And then, of course, there is the monologue he delivers extemporaneously, occasionally glancing at notes, pulling anecdotes from experience, repeating angry assertions with comfort and ease. Daisey traverses a series of lyric meditations on his own past, memoir-like vignettes, describing bouts of paralytic depression or flirting with suicide in the icy October waves of a lake in Maine. He reminisces about starting a summer repertory company in Maine’s Western woods with a friend and his three ex-girlfriends. He tells the story of a stint as high school teacher where he stuck  76 high school kids on a stage in order to win a state daisey_proofcompetition. Woven throughout these memoir-like vignettes – the real gems of this show – Daisey tosses in snippets of conversation with a literary manager over here, a producer over there and a running series of interactions with a convivial drinking buddy and artistic director.

Daisey’s considerable accomplishment as an actor and a lucid storyteller aside, the show’s titular content is where it’s at its weakest. He paints a colorful but indistinct portrait of the American Theater as an aging, dying art form. It’s not that he doesn’t paint it well – he absolutely does. He talks chillingly of aging subscriber bases and listening to the hiss of oxygen tanks from the darkness beyond the stage; he expresses his deep fear that he is surfing through life on the last crest of American theater’s relevance, even going so far as to say that after him, "they’ll turn off the lights." He even includes a great bit about freeze-dried boxes of actors being dropped off from New York or “Law & Order” to work with a director who scrawled a drunk concept blueprint on a SoHo cocktail napkin before boarding a private jet to join the thawing actors for three weeks; that this is usually done with some specious connection to ‘community’ and how it would be entirely ludicrous if, say, professional sports worked like this.

The tone, when Daisey is railing against the American Theater establishment, is melodramatic and alarmist.  And it’s just this cynical topic that makes the show so engaging to experience. He is really mad; strong emotions are key to any sense of drama.  And a talented monologist trying to tackle these tough questions is a welcome change from what Daisey describes as all that "academic mist" about the dwindling audiences and commercialization and corporatism and the "end of theater". Unfortunately, How Theater Failed America‘s biggest hole is its almost total omission of alternatives.  If American Theater is so tied up in real estate or ailing or too corporate or failing, then what can be done to start bailing it out?  

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Playwright Arlene Malinowski talks “…Sainthood”

Living the same life as us, but in a different way

 

by Dani Kaslow

A-MalinowskiFor most people, starting one’s career as a Deaf education teacher, obtaining a master’s degree in counseling followed by a doctorate in higher and adult education before ultimately settling into writing and acting would seem like an unusual path. For Arlene Malinowski, writer and performer of the autobiographical solo show Aiming for Sainthood, it was a logical progression. “Everything I’ve done career-wise has fed into  the next thing,” she said in a recent telephone interview. First and foremost, Malinowski sees herself as an educator. “Writing and sharing my story and my family’s story are just educating in a different way.”

Malinowski’s parents are Deaf, with a capital D. In Deaf culture, a “Deaf” person is someone with a hearing loss who is part of the Deaf community and uses American Sign Language. A “deaf” person is someone who has a significant hearing loss, but who is not culturally Deaf. Although she is hearing, Malinowski grew up in the Deaf community, straddling (and often bridging) the worlds of mainstream American culture and Deaf culture.

The role of hearing children in Deaf families often involves taking on adult responsibilities at a young age as the children are called on to interpret the conversations and the cultural differences of the adults around them. Aiming for Sainthood is the second in Malinowski’s trilogy of full-length solo shows about her experiences as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). When asked if she, like many other aiming CODA’s, ever went through a period of rebelling against her role in the family and its responsibilities, Malinowski laughed and said, “it’s all in my first show, What Does the Sun Sound Like. That show is about growing up CODA and coming to the realization of ‘that’s my tribe.’” Although some of her duties were unique, Malinowski thinks she was similar to most other teenagers. “I think every kid goes through some kind of rebellion. Mine manifested itself as ‘do I have to?’ (interpret or whatever), but I think every kid goes through it in some way or other. I got wild, but I wasn’t a bad child.”

Aiming for Sainthood is billed as “a solo play for Deaf and hearing audiences,” and is told in sign language and voice. Director Richard Perez does not know American Sign Language, but Malinowski doesn’t see Perez’s inability to sign as negatively impacting the process. “It is different, in that it is solo work, especially autobiographical solo work, so the [actor-director] relationship is much more collaborative,” said Malinowski. She also praised Perez’s efforts to learn about Deaf culture. “He’s been great trying to learn about Deaf culture. It’s opened a great world for him to start understanding what Deaf culture is. He’s been just great.”

It isn’t only her director who has earned Malinowski’s respect in this area. “I am humbled by hearing people who have stepped across their comfort line to communicate [with Deaf individuals]. I am grateful for every hearing person who has tried to sign, or gesture, or write a note, because I know it’s hard. I know it is. I am awed by their ability to be kind and to make contact.”

Malinowski challenges audiences to learn about Deaf culture while they’re being entertained. Though a Deaf family is beyond the experience of most audience members, she has been surprised to find how many people could relate to her story. She has been approached by several people whose first exposure to Deaf culture was through her work who say, “that’s my story!”

Malinowski has found that the struggles of children of first generation immigrants can especially reflect similar experiences she went through. Linguistic and cultural differences within a single family are themes common to immigrant and Deaf/hearing families. Malinowski can relate to the need to find an identity within a culture that some immigrants feel. “My first show is primarily about finding identity, in my case as a CODA.”

Malinowski said initially people were shocked that “my family life is so normal,” but she was pleasantly surprised to find how quickly audiences seemed to understand that. “Aside from the flashing lights for the doorbell and the waving of the hands,” family life in Malinowski’s house growing up was “like anybody else’s.”

The universality of human experience, while the details may differ, seems to be part of Malinowski’s larger message. “I would want people to know that everyone does have a story, but we have stopped listening to each other. Hopefully, through my work, people will start listening to each other. In the Deaf community, because storytelling is such a high art, their stories are passed from hand to hand to hand and the Deaf community embraces that storytelling. Deaf culture has done that right. They’ve passed their culture and their history from hand to hand. Really, in the end, we all live the same lives, just in many different ways.”

Malinowski has acting credits in theater, television, and film. In addition to the trilogy of which Aiming for Sainthood is a part, Malinowski has written and starred in three solo one-act plays which she has performed in multiple venues. For now, Chronic, the third show in Malinowski’s trilogy, is in the conceptual stages. She continues to educate, and not only through her solo shows. Malinowski has taught at colleges throughout the country and currently teaches solo intensives in her studio in addition to teaching at Chicago Dramatists, where she is Resident Playwright.

Theatergoers will have the opportunity to see Aiming for Sainthood this weekend at Millennium Park as part of the In the Works series. Aiming for Sainthood will be produced later this season at Victory Gardens Theater’s new Studio Theater in Chicago.


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Aiming For Sainthood

A Solo Play For Deaf And Hearing Audiences Written/performed by Arlene Malinowski
Directed by Associate AD Richard Perez

About the Play

When her Deaf mother gets cancer, a middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: “Where is God?” and “Who took my Springsteen poster?”

The hearing daughter of devout Deaf parents must navigate through the cross-cultural maze of the medical world, the Deaf world, and the world beyond. This story is about parents and children, Deaf and hearing, love and forgiveness, faith and tolerance, and finding yourself amid the clash of cultures we call America.

Through this autobiographical, one-woman play, Ms. Malinowski shares her heritage. It is told through both sign language and voice, using both Deaf and hearing storytelling techniques. It challenges audiences to share a world beyond their experiences: the culture of Deafness – a community of people defined not by their disability but by their shared language, perspective and values – a community which believes, “We aren’t broke – so don’t try to fix us.”

REGULAR PERFORMANCES:

Thursday, March 25, Friday, March 26 and Saturday, March 27. All shows at 7:30pm.

TICKET PRICES: All Tickets are $10
To purchase tickets, call 312.742.TIXS (8497) or buy online here of at http://millenniumpark.org/

NOTE: With the In the Works series, audiences have a chance to sit on the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, experiencing works in development by local theater artists or companies. The series is supported by a grant from Boeing Charitable Trust.

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REVIEW: Just An Ordinary Man (Steppenwolf Theatre)

More like extra-ordinary

 
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Steppenwolf Theatre presents:
 
Just an Ordinary Man
 
written and performed by Joe Frank
at
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
performed March 13th
(more info)
 
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt
 

On March 13, Santa Monica-based NPR broadcaster and monologist Joe Frank took his peculiar sense of humor to the stage at Steppenwolf for a very special one-night event. The night was organized by ensemble member Terry Kinney, and sold out three days in advance, according to Mr. Frank’s facebook page. His large Chicago fan base stems from his Sunday night radio show on WBEZ. His work is dreamlike, surreal and very, very funny. For his performance Saturday night, Mr. Frank read a piece from 2008 “Just An Ordinary Man.” He sat behind a desk, with at trashcan to his left and a glass of whiskey to his right and read aloud his 90-minute surreal monologue, without even taking one sip of water. On the opposite end of the stage, his musical accompanist James Harrah wailed on electric guitar at all the right moments. The only other set piece was a large movie screen, on which a short film was projected about halfway through the evening.

Joe Frank’s work is hilarious and profound. He has an uncanny ability to create a world of darkness, and then crack the tension with highly absurd comedy. Yet this alone does not encompass his writing style. It’s unhinged yet poignant. Often, the tales will lead to a metaphorical ending. For example, one story in the program is about a man who owns the largest telescope in the world, a dreamlike and abstract notion, and ends with the haunting, real world revelation, “You can’t see the entire universe in the daytime.” This particular show focuses on the passing of time, the loss of love and art, among many, many other things. It is very loosely framed by love letters from “Just An Ordinary Man” to the woman he is clearly stalking, but whom he considers to be his first love. His stories morph into one another, and are often separated by a guitar solo that leads into Mr. Frank picking up anew.

At one point on Saturday night, Joe Frank riffed on the word “meaning” as it relates to art. Meaning is important, he conjectured, but if there is too much meaning, then the thing loses all it’s meaning. His exhausting repetition of the word “meaning” rendered the word, (you guessed it) meaningless, transforming the word into the antithesis of its definition. This kind of insightful sculpting of words is more than a parlor trick: it is a profound and carefully orchestrated exploration of the English language and the boundaries of communication. Through the seemingly pointless speech, Mr. Frank made a clear point about intention and honesty in art. Finding this, the purest kind of communication, should always be the most rudimentary goal of theatre, although that intention is often overshadowed, perhaps in the quest of that little thing Mr. Frank finds so fascinating: meaning. Mr. Frank’s work forgets to be consumed with political or social import and instead explores the human mind.

The silent short film directed by Paul Rachman and featuring Linda Carol and Joe Frank bisected the evening. The film was projected behind Mr. Frank as he read aloud the narration. It was a clever and charming piece that flowed with the performance nicely, especially because of how in sync Frank’s reading was with the film behind him. The visual component was a refreshing addition to what was otherwise an evening of watching Mr. Frank read. The words were intended to be the stars of the evening, and the performance perfectly matched the radio show in tone, although a stronger visual component would have been nice.

Unfortunately. Mr. Frank has no scheduled dates to return to Chicago, but there are still opportunities to hear his work. His radio show airs in syndication every Sunday night at 11 PM on WBEZ and archives of his radio show are available on his website www.joefrank.com.

 

 
Rating:  ★★★½
 

Review: Goodman’s “Stoop Stories”

Story-telling as an art form

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Goodman Theatre present:

Stoop Stories
by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Jo Bonney
thru October 11th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

stoop1 Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith’s Stoop Stories is poetically written and powerfully performed. The smooth sounding sentences of Orlandersmith’s speech also tell us direct stories. Stoop Stories is not a poetry reading, it is a collection of memories shared to us by over ten different characters played by the author herself, Dael Orlandersmith.

Orlandersmith goes back to her home in Harlem, on a stoop where so many lives have passed. Through different characters of various races, ages and sexes she uses stories told around the stoop to talk about the place in New York where she grew up. There is not much individual character development, but Stoop Stories is not about the specific individuals or the individual narratives that are being told. It is about her and the neighborhood she grew up in as a whole. Orlandersmith brings the audience back to the old days of Harlem with characters such as a heart-broken 81-year old Holocaust survivor who tells a story about when he shared a moment with Billie Holiday (the 2nd best scene), and up through stoop2 the years to the time when she was a girl fighting to escape the stoops in Spanish Harlem. In telling her own story, Orlandersmith also tells stories of other peers she grew up with who had similar aspirations but their lives don’t all share in the same happy ending she acquired.

The best part about this play is the writing; the sensual arrangement of words. The performance by Orlandersmith lives up to the script’s high standards, although the storyteller was dwarfed by the overwhelming size of the set. Orlandersmith is alone on a large stage and the backdrop is a huge oversized stoop with the authentically plain concrete exterior of a home in Harlem. The backdrop is wonderfully done and striking to look at, but it takes away from the storyteller where the attention should be focused. Orlandersmith can hold her own on stage without such a bold set. She is the type of performer that thrives when all eyes are only on her and grabs our attention through her words and the places they take us.

The stoop is where the stories are being told between characters in the memories of Orlandersmith’s mind, but Orlandersmith steps away from the set to tell her stories to us so that she can take the audience to the places within her words. The stage has a dream-like setting created by lighting designer Keith Parham that gives one the feeling that someone larger than life is coming out at dusk to share tales directly to us. The atmosphere singles out the speaker in the beginning of the play as a storyteller, and along with the purposefully chosen music, helps create smooth transitions as Orlandersmith changes into different characters for a new point of view on Harlem. The direction of Jo Bonney moves this performance along rhythmically blending the compilation of narratives together to tell a larger story.

 

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Dael Orlandersmith’s speech is musical; a powerful dramatic spoken song. It had me rocking ‘n’ rolling to her sensual stories of the mixed-bag of lives that passed by the streets of Harlem. Stoop Stories is a deeply personal story, and Orlandersmith lets us see the emotional side of her past and how she made choices to escape the trappings of the stoops in Harlem. This is a performance most people can identify with in their own way. Everyone has “Stoop Stories,” whether they are shared around a stoop in the west side of Chicago, the backyard in the suburbs or on stage at the Goodman Theatre.

Rating: «««½

 

Stoop Stories is playing at the Goodman Theatre (Owen stage,) 160 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through October 11th

Chicago theater happenings – Pegasus Players, Mary Poppins, Emerald City, and Porchlight Theatre

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»» Broadway in Chicago’s upcoming musical, Mary Poppins, has extended their run for 2 more weeks, which now will run through July 12th.  Contact Broadway in Chicago for info and tickets.
 

 

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»» Emerald City Theatre will be offering a St. Patrick’s Day special for Saturday, March 14 and Sunday March 15 – wear green to performances on these dates and receive a free special gift from the Wizard!  More info.
    
  e1235510044Porchlight Music Theatre will be holding their 3rd Annual Jazz Brunch at the Drake Hotel on Sunday, March 29th.  Porchlight is Chicago’s music theatre leader, and this annual event is an important part of raising funds to continue their award-winning productions. 
For more info, send e-mail to porchlighttheatre@yahoo.com, call at 773-325-9884, or visit their website.
 

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»» Don’t miss out on Pegasus Players newest production, the world premier of “The Shape of the Girl” by Joan MacLeod.  Starring Alice Wedoff, this one-woman show deals with the code of silence and tacit complicity surrounding the Reena Vick murder in Canada in 1997.  Directed by Ilesa Duncan, The Shape of the Girl , running March 2nd through April 12th, is the perfect production to help celebrate the 30th-anniversary (!!) of Pegasus Players, a true Chicago theatrical treasure.

 

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